A history of violence: In defense of ‘Leo’ and Lokesh Kanagaraj’s penchant for the action genre

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A bullied and disgruntled teenage boy watching Bruce Lee movies to learn some moves, could end up learning more about Lee’s appeal to peace and oneness, and fall in love with martial arts movies. Or, he might turn a blind eye to all that and stray onto a violent path. Or, he might yet realise that movies are just “24 lies per second at the service of truth.” Now, should Bruce Lee be held responsible for the kid’s newfound love of violence?

Thanks to recent films like Vikram, Jailer, Viduthalai, Saani Kaayidham and so on — and particularly due to the trailer of Leo, Lokesh Kanagaraj’s upcoming film with Vijay — there have been clarion calls on Tamil movies becoming more and more violent. Much of these concerns operate under the fair belief that cinema can influence people, and that such on-screen violence could result in a surge of criminal activities.

This is an unfair burden that several creators — from Quentin Tarantino to Anurag Kashyap to Park Chan-Wook — have been forced to deal with over the years; but there is a lot that has been overlooked also.

Can movies influence people?

Whether movies can influence people is an inconclusive scrutiny with one too many factors to consider before turning to creators.

It’s reasonable to believe that movies can merely add up to the qualities we inherently possess or acquire as socio-political beings. An idea remains dormant unless we agree and choose to act upon it consciously. If a viewer turns a blind eye to Lokesh’s call for a drug-free society or the perils of a life in crime, and instead chooses to try out how pliers can tear through the heels of a man (in Vikram), what does it say about the said viewer?

Further, such an entertainment medium only reflects on the state of crime in society. If this is to be derived as an external incitement that can bring out the worst in people, is it fair to accuse only cinema — of all the many things that make up life — just because it reflects reality?

Catharsis through violence

Not all kinds of on-screen violence get scrutinised under the same scale. What seems to be the concern is how explicit and disturbing the violence is; you wouldn’t flinch at the sight of Godzilla running across cityscapes, and action heroes normalised guns ages ago. An explicitly gory shot can make you even laugh if intended. Indeed, Tarantino, a name synonymous with this subject, always termed filming violence, “a lot of fun,” and his works are testament to that. In Kill Bill: Volume 2, when you’re just anticipating a sword fight between two women inside a trailer home, Uma Thurman’s blood-thirsty hero uses a brutal but hilarious tactic to win against her one-eyed nemesis and it works like magic. Even comic-book titles like Deadpool, The Boys and the animated series Invincible enjoy subverting their tropes with violence.

Films like Kill Bill, Django Unchained, Saani Kaayidham and every single Lokesh Kanagaraj film are also harmless ways to let off some steam. A story about an underdog tearing through a sinister nemesis does provide catharsis. John Wick’s sagaabout a man who loses his wife, dog and car, is tailor-made to the fantasies of the modern American male. Such films appeal to the basic instinct of a sentient being, freed from moral codes and ethical dilemmas, and the theatre becomes a safe place to play out those fantasies that we wouldn’t choose to do outside.

Meanwhile, violence is also a means through which a filmmaker expresses himself; case in point, Park Chan-wook, who said that he struggles to express anger in real life. Perhaps, a combination of these is what Lokesh refers to when he calls violence in his films as “action that works for the audience when set up well” and that he gets a certain high from making action films.

Sensitive issues need sensitive handling

But things get murky when socio-political and socio-psychological factors come into the picture. It becomes all the more important role for critics to speak their minds to filmmakers who propagate violence against the oppressed or weaker sections of society. In the case of sexual violence, there are obviously no sides to choose for the aggressor and how it is depicted on-screen has to be looked at.

Filmmakers also inadvertently invite critiques when they attempt to write a good versus evil story but ignore the course to find justice through the Justice system; Arun Vijay’s Sinam or the many films that justify custodial violence are of this category.

Because these are social evils that relate to everyday living — sexual assault, queer-phobia, casteism, bigotry, and custodial torture exist evidently — such on-screen depiction can be harmful since this examination is with the consensus that movies can add to what people already carry.

Sensitive issues need sensitive handling. Some social films, in their justified attempt to depict the atrociousness of oppressors, can trigger a traumatic memory in the minds of the oppressed. For reasons like these, the need for trigger warnings before a film becomes vital.

Viewers need to share responsibility

Lokesh’s films infamously operate in a masculine-only space, and there is valid criticism of how he poorly writes women characters. In fact, his films enclose themselves in worlds that only function within (as the filmmaker himself says) themes and moral structures that he is willing to explore through cinema. This surprisingly has ensured that none of his four feature films even touch upon caste politics or gender issues. Perhaps, only the image of children hanging in Master necessitates a debate on the depiction of child abuse. Further, in his films, the Men of Law are themselves the perpetrators or the hero is up against an organisation/system that is far beyond the clutches of the law.

What truly gets lost in all these talks about violence in Lokesh’s films is what he says to potential drug users/peddlers and the mafia, or to those who lay their hands on the women of a family. That these nuances or contexts might get lost shouldn’t be a reason for creators to stop telling their stories.

Viewers also need to share the responsibility for what they take home. If an audience member steps out of a film before seeing the perils of choosing a life of crime — poetic justice is served in the end since the times of Shakespeare — should we hold the director responsible? Imagine if Martin Scorsese was banned from making movies because a mentally deranged John Hinckley Jr attempted to kill the US President after watching Taxi Driver. This is also why it’s shallow to see gun culture in the U.S as one resulting from their love for action movies, and not the inverse.

The context of how ideas are written and directed, and what they are intended for, is of utmost importance in how we critique them. On-screen violence cannot be measured under the same scale, trigger warnings are fair demands, and the audiences and critics need to stop making cinema an easy target for our society’s shortcomings.

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